Agency Statutory Abnegation in the Deregulatory Playbook

84 Pages Posted: 20 Jan 2019 Last revised: 24 Jun 2021

Date Written: January 11, 2019


If an agency newly declares that it lacks statutory power previously claimed, how should such a move — what this article calls agency statutory abnegation — be reviewed? Given the array of strategies an agency might use to make a policy change or move the law in a deregulatory direction, why might statutory abnegation be chosen? After all, it is always a perilous and likely doctrinally disadvantageous strategy for agencies. Nonetheless, agencies from time to time have utilized statutory abnegation claims as part of their justification for deregulatory shifts. Actions by agencies during 2017 and 2018, under the administration of President Donald J. Trump, reveal an especially prevalent use of such statutory abnegation strategies. This article explains the agency statutory abnegation strategy, illustrating its variants with review of past and recent uses. It then distinguishes statutory abnegation claims from other agency actions and explanations that might appear to manifest or permit such a strategy, but actually involve doctrinally different and less problematic settings. Then, after distilling the key elements of doctrines governing agency policy change, or what is sometimes referred to as consistency doctrine, it reviews procedural and analytical hurdles agencies must surmount to succeed in a policy change. It closes by exploring how analysis of this strategic move reveals the inadequacy of, or perhaps the naïve publicly interested optimism behind, prevalent theories and linked normative claims about agency incentives, judicial roles, and political accountability. The article closes by analyzing the persistent judicial rejection of such strategies and the underlying normative vision they reflect about the balance of law and politics in the administrative state.

Keywords: Administrative Law, Regulation, Deregulation, Environmental Law, Statutory Interpretation, Deference, Trump, Gorsuch, Scalia, Kennedy, Law and Science, Risk Regulation, Regulatory Contingencies, “Hard Look Review”, “Reasoned Decisionmarking”, Statutory Abnegation, Consistency Doctrine, Climate Chang

Suggested Citation

Buzbee, William W., Agency Statutory Abnegation in the Deregulatory Playbook (January 11, 2019). Duke Law Journal, Vol. 68, No. 8, Pp. 1509-1591, 2019. (2019). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 2120., Available at SSRN:

William W. Buzbee (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
(202) 662-9402 (Phone)

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